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By the semifinal round, darkness has completely enveloped the track, and mosquitoes are hovering under the lights. Prudhomme's elapsed time is 6.24, just good enough to beat Tom Hoover's 6.26.
The final round proves to be the most eventful, though it is played out at 1 a.m. in front of only a few hundred chilled spectators. The cool air has altered the condition of the track, made it slicker, and Prudhomme considers himself fortunate to have lane choice. The other driver, Bill Schifsky, is good, but Prudhomme gets away quickly from the lights. Halfway down the track, however, he begins to drift near the center line, performing a perilous pas de deux with disaster. But the car straightens out and Prudhomme's win light flashes on at the end of the strip.
"I just touched the throttle coming off the line," Prudhomme says later. "When I saw him coming I hammered it, and that's when the car began to float."
The Monza is cleaned up and loaded on the trailer, and Prudhomme and his crew begin an hour-long drive to the nearest motel. As the truck leaves the track, a speeding car sideswipes it, then disappears into the night. Nothing is said, but there is something diminishing about the thought of the king of the speed demons exiting as a routine traffic fatality. Prudhomme falls asleep.
Sunnnnnddddaaaayyyy the trailer is hitched to the truck, and the five-hour drive back to Cleveland begins. Drag racing's all-conquering hero has to toss a coin with Peloquin for first crack at the cramped sleeper compartment while Brandt drives. Prudhomme wins and from his perch over the back seat launches into a sermon about the mountebankery of the men who run drag racing.
The alienation of affections between owners and the hired help is as old as capitalism, and though Prudhomme is making good money now he remembers what it was like to struggle. "All these racers are out there starving," he says, "so they call up a track operator and beg him for a booking. The owner asks the driver how much money he wants, and whatever figure the driver gives him, the man says 'too much.' The racer is at the track operator's mercy because if he doesn't take what's being offered, the man has about 50 other guys he can call. If the driver doesn't want to go hungry, he'll take whatever bone they throw him.
"The bottom line as far as most of these guys are concerned is their balance sheet. I've seen drivers get totaled at a track, then heard some moron of an owner moaning about how his insurance rates are going to go up. The guy who has knocked over one of his lousy light poles isn't even stiff yet, and the owner is worried about insurance premiums. I guess it wouldn't be fair to say all of them are that way. Just most of them."
Prudhomme's discourse is interrupted by a passing trucker, who has seen the name painted on the trailer and wants to talk on the CB. What follows, less the mandatory references to bears, is a transcript of that conversation.
"You fellows headed for Idaho?" asks the trucker.
" Cleveland. Why do you ask?"